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Primary and Secondary Sources   Tags: resources  

Last Updated: Jan 13, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts
Primary and Secondary Sources Print Page

The Difference

Primary sources: A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence that is usually recorded or created during the time period of the topic under investigation.

Secondary sources: A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event. It is generally at least one step removed from the event, and can be recorded or created anywhere from days to centuries later.

The distinction between primary and secondary sources can be difficult to determine, but it depends generally upon the relationship of the source to the topic under investigation. For example, in researching Ernest Hemingway, the book Ernest Hemingway: An Illustrated Biography by David Sandison would be a secondary source. But in researching the literary style of David Sandison, it would be a primary source.


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

  • diaries, letters and emails
  • speeches, testimonies and interviews
  • minutes of meetings
  • some newspaper articles
  • news film or video
  • autobiographies
  • statistics and raw data sets
  • original scientific research
  • legislative hearings and bills
  • photographs and maps
  • poetry, drama, novels, music, and art
  • artifacts such as jewelry, tombstones, furniture and clothing
  • textbooks
  • encyclopedias
  • literature reviews
  • many magazine articles
  • journal articles that are not primary reports of new research
  • literary criticism
  • reviews of books, plays, movies
  • a book written in the 20th century about the causes of the French Revolution.

Locating and Evaluating Primary Sources

There are a number of ways to locate and access primary sources:

  • Reprinted sources published in books or collections, i.e. diaries, correspondence, speeches. (I-Share or I-Share online catalog found at
  • Digital library initiatives such as the Library of Congress’ American Memory Digital Library. (internet search)
  • Original materials housed in archives and manuscript repositories. (internet search; published directories of archives and manuscript repositories)

The ability to determine the authenticity and research value of primary source material is a skill that needs to be developed over time. There are a number of criteria that should be considered when evaluating each source, including:

  • Author/Creator: How well situated was s/he to observe or record the events in question? What was the author’s physical location? Were they an eyewitness or did they get the information from another?
  • Content: What is the document about?
  • Additional information: What else do you need to know in order to fully understand the document – do you need to look up names, places, dates, and/or technical terms?
  • Date of creation: How soon after the event was the record created?
  • Intended audience: When, how, and for whom was the record created?
  • Potential biases: Is there bias, either in the report or in yourself that must be accounted for? Might the person’s social or economic position have influenced knowledge that could affect the credibility of the record?
  • Authenticity: Is it original, digital, reprinted, etc.?
  • Reliability: Is there corroboration?
  • Is it relevant to your research?

    Using Primary Sources – Resources and Strategies


    The Special Collections department of Morris library is a repository for both primary and secondary sources. The collecting scope includes 20th Century American and British literature, Irish Studies, American Philosophy, Theatre, the Civil War, and both SIU history and regional Southern Illinois history.

    • Rare Books: Research collection of published material.
    • Manuscript Collections: Non-print collections of manuscripts, correspondence, and photographic images.
    • University Archives: Non-Current University records of enduring historic, legal or financial value.


    Davidson, James West and Mark Hamilton Lytle. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1986, 1982. (Dewey Books, Basement - 973.072 D252A1986)

    Kyvig, David E. and Myron A. Marty. Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State & Local History, 2000, 1982. (Dewey Books, Basement - 973.072 K99n2000)

    Poulton, Helen J. The Historian's Handbook: A Descriptive Guide to Reference Works. Norman, Okla.: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1972. (Reference D20 .P68 1972x)


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